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August 31, 2013

Establishing a physical tone

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    It took Dominique Easley less than one quarter to learn something about Toledo's offensive linemen: They couldn't stop him.

    On the Rockets' first drive, he busted past a guard and wrapped up running back David Fluellen while falling to the ground. One play later, he drew all the attention inside and gave Ronald Powell a free run for his first sack since returning from two ACL surgeries.

    "I just like to get to people before they get to me," Easley said. "In reality, you can't hurt somebody and get away with it. But in football, you can hurt somebody and get away with it."

    It wasn't just Easley. Florida came out in its first offensive possession and ran the ball four consecutive times. Eight out of the 11 plays on the Gators' opening drive were run plays, all of which were inside of the tackles. The result was Florida's first touchdown on a season-opening drive since 2009.

    Gideon Ajagbe, a 6-foot-2, 244-pound linebacker turned fullback nicknamed the "Nigerian Nightmare" by teammates, got the start and at multiple points was lined up alongside fellow fullback Hunter Joyer in the backfield. It was all power all the time for the Gators as they took a 14-point halftime lead.

    Late in the third quarter, the interior power opened up two screen plays for Ajagbe, who scored his first career touchdown.

    "Last year, we didn't come out like we did today," senior cornerback Jaylen Watkins said. "We made a statement today that we're a different team. We've got some good players on offense and some good players on defense."

    Both sides of the ball had a simple goal: Limit the amount of times Toledo's much-hyped up-tempo offense snapped the ball. UF coach Will Muschamp said Wednesday he was preparing his defense to see upwards of 80-85 snaps. The Rockets ran 54 plays. The snail-tempo Gators ran 70.

    It's difficult to run a seamless and fast offense when that offense can't stay on the field. Toledo was 1 for 13 on third-down conversions. Toledo quarterback Terrance Owens completed the same amount of passes - 17 - as Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel. Owens attempted 16 more passes than Driskel, and two of Driskel's incompletions were drops.

    "When you play a tempo team, it's a team game and I thought our guys did a fantastic job with that," Muschamp said. "We wanted to run the ball because of what they do offensively. We did not want to get into an 80, 90-play deal. Obviously we were down some defensive players today and our plan was to have possession of the ball offensively."

    That's exactly what the Gators did. Florida out-rushed Toledo by 212 yards and held the ball for 19:36 longer than Toledo. Defensively, the Gators utilized their "rabbits" package to perfection on third down, sacking Owens twice but registering eight hurries. Easley was a force inside against the run throughout the entire game, and starting linebackers Neiron Ball and Michael Taylor combined for eight tackles.

    But it was Easley, self-admittedly playing full-speed for the first time since tearing his ACL late in 2011, who stole the show.

    "My knee is back to 100 percent, that's what it really is," Easley said. "I feel like I'm back to myself."

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